The Multi Bioregion Earthship
Adaptation – any alteration in the structure or function of an organism or any of its parts that results from natural selection and by which the organism becomes better fitted to survive and multiply in its environment.
Who am I if not myself?
So, you’ve decided that you would like to live a more sustainable life — filled with natural homes, gardens and fresh water among other things. This transition is one that needs to be carefully thought and felt out. There are questions such as "where am I going to live?" or "what kind of dwelling do I want to have?", "what am I going to do for an income?" among other variables I’m sure you have racing around in your head.
We are going to focus on adapting the Earthship design concept to suit your bioregion. Before you get into the actual design of the house you need to ask yourself “What do I want for myself in this life?” It could be things like health, spiritual prosperity, a broad vocabulary, financial independence; it could really be anything! Try and spend some time in a place that you feel most yourself in. Somewhere really comfortable and go over what is really important to you. What do you want people to say about you in an eulogy once you pass? What are you going to leave as your legacy?
Take your time! This is definitely a part of the process that doesn’t need to be rushed. Remember to give yourself room to shift and evolve into who you may become. What you believe in and hold dear to yourself now may change in time, with experience.
And don’t forget, have fun with it! The end goal is a product of the process towards it. If the journey is enjoyable, the destination will hold a bounty of fruit.
Once you have set the foundation for the path that will lead you to your sanctuary, you can then start thinking about what features will serve the tangible living out of that journey. Lets take a short break from this and talk about what ‘Earthships’ actually are.
Traditionally, the term ‘Earthship’ was coined by renegade architect Michael Reynolds when he set out on a quest to free people from the clutches of utility companies and local infrastructure. The motherland for Earthships are in Taos, New Mexico, which is high desert country in south-west United States. They have an annual rainfall of seven inches, and the temperature ranges from approximately 15°C below zero to around +40°C. They get more than 300 days a year of full sunshine, heavy snow as well as winds that could blow the very thoughts out of your head without warning!
Reynolds came up with an integrated design concept that could deal with these harsh conditions in a way that is sustainable for people and planet, making sure that all areas of survival were covered. Here are the six main elements that make up an Earthship:
- Building with natural and recycled material
- Thermal/solar heating and cooling
- Solar and wind electricity
- Water from the sky
- Food production
- Sewerage treatment
What separates Earthships from other natural and ecological house designs is that each one of those six elements operate simultaneously. Just like the human body, the systems of the home nurture and support one another to become a fully functional, healthy home that not only takes care of your survival, but your lifestyle becomes one that encourages you to thrive and evolve to your true potential.
Now, these buildings were initially designed to withstand and operate in arid/semi-arid bioregions. Since their birth, Earthships have gone global. Taking on the challenges of different bioregions has proven to be an exciting and ever-evolving learning experience.
Here are a few criticisms that I hear from time to time regarding Earthships:
- Tyres are toxic
- There is not enough natural light
- There is too much concrete used
- They are only suited to the desert
All of these concerns are real and well worth looking into. So lets do that!
Like all great ideas and concepts, they require constant evaluation and evolution. Just like water, if they remain stagnant, it restricts movement and eventually becomes toxic! Lets have a look at the six Earthship elements and how we can adapt them to different bioregions.
1. Building with natural and recycled materials, and 2. Thermal solar heating/cooling (I am including both because they are heavily integrated)
Earthships use a lot of tyres, bottles and cans in their standard designs. We look at using the byproducts of society as a way of engaging with the last part of their production cycle, their death. This part of the cycle is ignored a lot in society as it has a certain stigma attached to it. There is a lot of fear that circles around death, trash, faeces and waste in general. This leads to a disconnect between the human and the pinnacle of their cycle. Without death and waste, you don’t have rebirth. In turn, by utilising the byproducts of society, we are engaging that last part of the cycle and giving waste new life.
Tyres are steel belted, rubber encased building blocks that are piled up in mass graves around the world, where they spontaneously combust and degrade in the full sun. As a building material, they can hold a lot of thermal mass. A standard tyre can hold up to a wheel barrow and a half of rammed earth. When pounded they weigh around 125kg per tyre. They are fire proof, earthquake resistant, pest proof and in the right conditions, they wont degrade for lifetimes!
It has been said that tyres will leach and off-gas when set in the wall of a house. This is true if the work hasn’t been done in the right conditions. Firstly, tyres stop leaching gasses once they have done 20,000 miles on the road (for more info look at https://earthship.com/ off-gassing). If you are building with tyres, make sure they have little to no tread left on them.
For materials to degrade they need to be exposed to varying elements (dry to wet, sun to shade, etc). The tyres need to be pounded to near full capacity so there is no wind damage, they need to be buried on one side with a waterproof membrane that will stop moisture from seeping in and they need to be plastered on the front face so there isn’t any direct sun. In this sense, there is no opportunity for the tyres to degrade because they are encased completely in earth.
In saying this, you don’t need to use tyres for your main building material to achieve thermal mass storage and load bearing capabilities. In some places it is unnecessary to have that much thermal storage capabilities. Here is a run down of a couple of different environments I have lived in and some likely conditions to think about.
Melbourne, Australia – Melbourne is subject to the ‘four seasons in one day’ weather pattern. It can be raining in the morning, sunny by lunch and then hailing blood by tea! Melbourne averages around 180 cloudy days a year, around 50 clear days and an average of 100 days of rain annually (https://www.bom.gov.au/ climate/averages/tables/cw_ 086071.shtml). This means that in Melbourne they will not be able to store as much thermal mass from passive solar gain because they just don’t have as much winter sun. You orientate a home to face the winter sunrise so you can avoid the harsh direct rays of the summer sun. You do not need all that potential for thermal storage so what are you going to use instead? Looking at materials that have high insulation properties would be a good place to start — materials such as straw-bale and hempcrete, for example.
Using these materials will restrict a lot of the external weather conditions from impacting the temperature inside the house. You will still need some thermal storage however, for keeping the internal temperature consistent. Natural plasters are a good way to go. Cob and lime plasters have great thermal properties. Having an internal fire source, cooking, making love, having people around at your house, are a few good ways of creating energy to store in the thermal mass in the walls. Finally, you will need to heavily insulate your roof area to reduce the heat leaving your house. There are many more things you could do but this is only one small article!
Nimbin, Australia – This area is subtropical. We get 91 inches of rainfall a year, sunny days in winter, humidity, a lot of clay, white ants (termites) plus many more variables I wont get into. How it differs from Taos is that Nimbin doesn’t get the variables in temperature that New Mexico does. You aren’t trying to harvest sun energy here because there is little to no frost. It is all about shade, waterproofing, keeping the white ants away and ventilation. You could definitely build with tyres here because the insulation factor isn’t as important as it is in cold/temperate climates like Melbourne. You could also use earth bags, mud bricks, hempcrete, straw-bale and stone as your main building material. It can get cold in the winter nights here so storing some mass will be beneficial. You are still orientating your house correctly because the summer sun is a wild beast here in the sub-tropics. Instead of trying to build a greenhouse to harvest as much sun as possible like they do in standard Earthship design, build a verandah instead. A verandah will shade you from the sun, and in doing so it can take up to 10 degrees off your internal temperature if done correctly. This also creates an outdoor entertainment area which is important in the subtropics — because it’s so good to be outside here!
It gets very humid so cross ventilation and a fire source is also a great idea as well as natural plasters. Natural plasters breathe and allow for the movement of moisture. The movement of moisture stops dampness issues that lead to mould. There are also no issues with harvesting water here. It is more of an issue of channelling and redirecting water to allow for flow. This can be done with french drains and also by building your house off the ground. You can raise an earth home off the ground using gravel or road base if you don’t want to put a home on poles. It all comes down to building in the right spot, with the right materials, for the right reasons.
3. Solar/wind electricity
Now that the climate of your home is fairly consistent, you don’t need to really spend that much on huge power systems. Residential homes use on average 47% of their power usage on heating and cooling space. That is one huge cost just eliminated!
Now, you have the sun and the wind that can take care of the rest.
You do not need to restrict yourself to these technologies though. Again it’s about what is appropriate for your circumstances. Solar and wind power energy systems are the most readily available and well-researched off-grid power sources on the market at the moment. The advancements in solar alone is mind boggling. This is definitely the easy way of getting power off-grid.
Things to consider – do you get enough sunlight to make solar a viable option? There are some panels you can get that operate better in cloudy conditions. You will need to research the average sun hours of where you live versus your average usage and then you can design a power system to best suit you.
You may want to get creative with your power harvesting. Try things like hydro-electric if you have a running stream, for example.
4. Harvesting water from the sky, and 5. food production, and 6. Sewerage treatment (all of which are part of one integrated system, the water trail!)
All the water used in Earthships is harvested from the clouds. The roof is turned into a bowl which gathers water to store in holding tanks. The same body of water is then used in all the sinks and showers in the house. From there the grey water is sent to an interior grey water treatment cell which also grows plants and food. From there the now filtered grey water is sent to the toilet cistern which flushes human waste into a septic system that filters itself and expels high nutrient black water to feed exterior plants and fruit trees.
Let’s look at the different stages of the water trail:
Harvesting water from the roof – This is especially important for homes being built in dry/arid climates. When you are short on water, it is a great idea to harvest as much of it as you can. For this reason, having a larger roof area will make for greater harvesting capacity. This becomes a delicate dance between having enough roof to harvest sufficient water and not making the interior rooms so big that it becomes difficult to make the temperature consistent. A great trick is extending the outdoor undercover living are to expand your harvesting capabilities.
If you have high snowfall, sometimes is could be beneficial to run the pipes for your solar hot water along the top of your roof so when they heat up, they melt the snow and you harvest more water before the snow evaporates.
If you have high rainfall, your options become wide open. For example, you don’t need as large a harvesting area because your rain is fairly consistent. What you can do is play with where your water is coming from and how it is getting to your house. Let’s say you are living on a slope and you build your home on a slightly lower part of the hill. A little higher on the hill you can have your undercover car parking area/garage. You can harvest your rainwater off this area and have your storage tank beneath the shed. Then you could gravity-feed the water down to the house, thus eliminating the need for electric pumps and allowing for natural water pressure. This frees up the roof of your house to be used as an extra entertainment area, or extra growing area. If you make a green roof, that will really help with the stability in room temperature.
Grey water treatment cell – Once the water has had its first use, whether it’s been the shower, sink or bath, it is then ready to be sent through the interior treatment cell. Traditionally, the treatment cell is located in the hall or lounge room. It grows food for the household while cleaning the grey water at the same time. The cell is dug out with a slope that gradually falls to its lowest point. It is then lined with pond liner, gravel, sand, soil and plants. The water is reticulated four times a day to prevent bacteria from developing. The gravel cleans any large particles and the roots from the plants eat finer nutrients. At the end of the cell the water is at a point of cleanliness where it can be used for flushing the toilet.
This system has been designed for an area where the external growing of plants is restricted by large seasons of frost and limited water fall. A couple of extra benefits of this system is that it introduces plant and water life, into the house. This allows for a richer quality of oxygen within the living space. It also introduces literal life into a space which is usually taken up with dead materials and electrical equipment. This works great for personal well-being and happiness. Even areas that don’t have issues with outdoor growing space would benefit from the multi purpose system. You could grow herbs and vegetable that you use on a daily basis internally for ease of accessibility. Look at the inside garden bed as a living pantry of sorts. If you are building somewhere that has a very high water table, you may want to consider building this system above ground.
Sewerage treatment – After the grey water has been filtered through your interior garden space, you are now ready for the third and fourth use — the toilet and the black water treatment cell. The grey water from the grey water cell is now pumped up to the toilet cistern. From there the toilet is flushed. You use a homemade septic system that uses basic rock filtration, anaerobic breakdown with the help of microbial filtration, which leaves you with a high nutrient black water. The ‘black gold’ is then run through a reed bed that has soil on top of it as well as plants and trees that can take high nutrient content. This is the final resting place for the water.
Again this system can be adapted to suit your environment and personal preference. Personally, I love using compost toilets that provide you with organic matter for the garden. The beauty of using a composting toilet is that it frees you up for one more water use after the grey water treatment cell! There are many compost toilet designs out there which are either DIY or shop bought systems. It’s all about finding out what is right for you and the land you call home.
That is the big lesson in all of this. There is no time like the time it takes to work out that time is not important! Once you start to learn all of these systems and how they integrate with each other, the fun can really begin.
Try camping out on your site for a while — you will really get to know your land on an intimate level. Speak to it, walk with it every day, and most importantly, listen to it. It is kind of like a relationship you would have with a lover. You wouldn’t purposefully get pregnant with someone you have just met. You would get to know one another, find out what they are all about. You would have times where you think it just isn’t worth the pain and other times where you feel so filled with joy that lightning could strike you and you would die a happy human. Your love-making gets more intense and passionate as your love grows into something that can only be described as the uniting of twin souls. Then you start to talk about what kind of upbringing you want for your children. You talk about if you agree on physical discipline, Steiner schooling and sport among other things. Then there is that day that you finally take the plunge with each other, and have a child. You are overjoyed with this blessing you have been given and you are now excited about the next exciting chapter of your life….
Building a house on your land is very similar! It is a relationship between your spirit, your land and your creativity. Like all good things, it takes time, passion and forward thinking. Wherever there is passion there is spirit. Forward thinking keeps the previous two from lifting off the ground and onto a place of unrealistic dreaming. The balance is the tricky part.
Just remember, if it all seems too much, to hard, or out of reach, just go back to that special place that you hold dear to yourself and sit there. Feel and think it out again. It is this place where you will find answers that you will never find in books, videos and lectures. This is where you will find your foundation that will lead you to the right books, videos and lectures. Ghandi said "be the change that you want to see in the world" and that is it. The change in human understanding begins with you and ends with you.
Happy journeying folks!